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Can Journalism's Impact Be Measured?

Kevin Davis, CEO and executive director of the Investigative News Network, says that before a system of standard metrics to measure journalism's impact can be developed, there first needs to be a clear understanding of who will be using the metrics and for what purposes. "Regardless of what metrics are developed and agreed upon, adopting repeatable methodologies and standards that can be measured objectively over time will be essential in gauging not only the impact of the organization today, but also its growth," he says.

There has been much discussion of late on the topic of impact measurement of the press and, in particular, nonprofit investigative news organizations.

And for good reason: foundations and philanthropists have been making sizable investments to help start and maintain hundreds of nonprofit newsrooms around the country and the globe; both in reaction to the alarming pull-back in commercial media and in an attempt to reinvigorate journalism in service of a free democracy.

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These funding sources, as is common in the nonprofit sector, only have limited time and resources to invest in a particular field. As a result, practitioners and investors in nonprofit journalism understand the need for objective criteria to assess the success of these projects and determine where to continue to invest time, resources and funds.

Yet, it is the consensus of those whose mission it is to produce investigative journalism that the goal and benefits of the work is in the actions that directly or indirectly result from the reporting and the deterrent function that a corps of investigative journalists have on those contemplating and doing wrong.

In their recent report published by the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University titled “The Art, Science and Mystery of Nonprofit News Assessment,” authors Hillary Niles and Charles Lewis (full disclosure, Charles “Chuck” Lewis is a co-founder and current board member of the organization I run, the Investigative News Network) clearly state:

“A review of recent, relevant literature and our informal conversations with experts in the field reveal growing ambitions toward the goal of developing a common framework for assessing journalism’s impact, yet few definitive conclusions about how exactly to reach that framework.

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“This is especially the case when journalism’s ‘impact’ is defined by its ultimate social outcomes — not merely the familiar metrics of audience reach and website traffic.”

While there have been calls from multiple circles for the development of standard metrics, there first needs to be a clear understanding of who will be using the metrics and for what purposes. Furthermore, it needs to be recognized that traditionally media metrics used externally on the revenue side differ in comprehensiveness and complexity from those used by media organizations internally.

This is true across the for-profit media landscape. It’s true from circulation reports to describe the audience size and type of newspapers; Nielsen Ratings to gauge television audience; weekly box office reports to determine success of motion pictures; and click-throughs to gauge the reach of digital advertising. Each “traditional” media sector has adopted a set of metrics regardless of the sample size, science of the methodology or even the representativeness of the agreed upon numbers.

That is not to say that television producers, motion picture studios and newspaper publishers don’t have better and more representational internal data. They do, however those metrics are often not easily utilized on the “buy side.”

The reasons how and why particular “industry-wide” metrics were adopted — despite their universally agreed-upon shortcomings — are far more about ubiquity and consensus then they are about merit.

This has tremendous implications for the nonprofit journalism sector, particularly as it relates to justification of ongoing and future projects.

So what then are the lessons that nonprofit investigative news producers and publishers can learn from more established media?

  • Metrics need to be clear and well defined. Previous attempts at codifying impact and engagement have tried to directly measure the intangible and have, as a result, been overly complicated. Moving forward each component and metric must be clear and not require either an engineering or business degree to use.
  • All organizations in the sector need to be able to use any adopted metrics. Given that many organizations in the nonprofit news business have little in the way of internal technical resources, any metric or standard adopted must be easy and inexpensive to deploy.
  • External standards need to be agreed upon and used by the entire sector. While foundations are notoriously independent in how, what and why they fund, agreement on standards will help eliminate confusion and reduce burden of reporting by grantees. Thankfully, leading journalism funders such as the Knight, McCormick and the Ethics & Excellence in Journalism foundations have already identified and begun working towards a common understanding of this shared need as, what I hope, will be a precursor to establishing standards.
  • Each organization also needs its own impact measurement standards. Organizations must embrace metrics and data points to help them gauge their effectiveness as a mission-driven organization. Organizations such as the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism are leading the way in helping define best practices in this area. Already, Public Engagement Director & Reporter Lauren Fuhrmann has developed a system for the Wisconsin Center that tracks every republished story across the organization’s numerous media partners in order to gauge the total reach of their content off-site.


Comments (1) -

Mike Donatello posted over 5 years ago
Kevin, what you argue is de rigueur on the research side of the news industry and in academic units devoted to the study of journalism. I can't imagine that generating valid measures will be that difficult. Obtaining the industry consensus to establish any metrics as standards, on the other hand...


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